She Loved

SHE LOVED TO DANCE
And did whenever she had the chance.

SHE LOVED TO HOLD HANDS
I’m not just talking about the millions of times she’d grab one of my unruly child hands before crossing a street or while strolling through a crowded mall. I mean like when I’d visit her in California and we’d be sitting side by side watching television and she would casually reach over and take my hand and place it gently in her own. I usually let her.“—Lisa

SHE LOVED TO KEEP UP WITH THE LATEST NEWS
She read the San Diego Tribune daily and religiously watched the evening news. At 5:00, no matter what she was doing, she’d “shhh” anyone within earshot and turn on the TV so she could be in the know.

SHE LOVED BEING A GRANDMOTHER
Brianna and Blake and MJ and Loy. They were her treasures.

SHE LOVED TO WASH HER DISHES TO A SPARKLING SHINE BEFORE PLACING THEM IN THE DISHWASHER

SHE LOVED COORDINATED OUTFITS
She hated the way I dressed. I still cannot rid my memory of her barring me from leaving the house one day while proclaiming, ‘You cannot wear a pink dress with black shoes!‘”—Lisa

SHE HATED HAVING TO CHANGE LANES ON THE FREEWAY

SHE LOVED A GOOD LOBSTER DINNER

SHE LOVED PLAYING GIN RUMMY
And she won far more often than not.

SHE HATED BINGO

SHE LOVED HER CHILDREN
She was forever gloating about Lisa’s accomplishments, Scott’s business acumen, and Marc’s big beautiful heart. Marc, her firstborn, called her daily and she adored hearing from him. She loved her baby boy Scott so much that when you’d ask her (in recent years) how many children she has she’d often say, “Four: Marc. Lisa. Scott. And Scott.” She must have felt that she could never have enough of him.

SHE LOVED TO BE THERE WHEN YOU NEEDED HER MOST
Even if you mistakenly believed you didn’t need her, like right after I gave birth to Loy and didn’t want her to fly up from San Diego to stay with us, but she did anyway and everything she did to help was exactly the right thing, from keeping at bay the myriad visitors (while graciously accepting their dropped-off meals) to cleaning the house to holding the baby so I could shower to teaching me the lullabies I would sing to Loy for many years to come.“—Lisa

SHE LOVED BEING THE FIRST ONE TO CALL HER KIDS AND SING TO THEM ON THEIR BIRTHDAYS

SHE LOVED TO QUOTE OLD WIVE’S TALES

SHE LOVED TO FISH
Okay, so that’s a slight exaggeration. She enjoyed when Marc took her out on his boat in Missouri.
Mom would never touch a fish or worm so when she was here I gave up fishing to help her. The priceless look on her face every time she caught a fish was so worth it. The excitement, the thrill, the squeal of joy she would give out I will hold forever and relive whenever I’m out on my lake. There is a point at the start of a cove that she named “crocodile point” because Mom thought it looked like a croc’s mouth. I will always call it that. Every time I look out at the lake the first thing I see is that point and it makes me think of Mom.”—Marc

SHE HATED CLOSED-MINDED, RACIST, OR SELFISH PEOPLE

SHE LOVED THE GOOD TIMES SHE HAD WITH OUR FATHER

 

 

But she hated him for leaving her after thirty years.

 

 

 




SHE LOVED A NICE PURSE
And she had quite the collection.

SHE LOVED TO SHOW OFF HER MAGICAL GARDENING SKILLS

SHE LOVED ALL CREATURES, GREAT AND SMALL
One year a mama bird made a nest in one of her planters on her deck. She considered moving it, but knew that would be cruel. A few days after the babies hatched she woke up to find her body covered with small itchy bites: her house had been inundated with bird mites. God, that made her so mad.”—Lisa

SHE LOVED HER SISTER SHARON
So much so that she moved from her beloved California condo to a gated community in a state she very much abhorred, just to be nearer to her. Sure, they had their differences, and yes, they fought over the silliest things, but the devotion those two had for one another was immeasurable. “She was my world.”—Sharon

SHE LOVED SHARON’S HUSBAND MARTY
We had a lot of fun together. Sometimes when I had work in San Diego I’d stop by and surprise her and her eyes would light up when she saw me. I remember one New Year’s Eve, she was dating that Woody guy at the time, and we all went to a Disco. We danced the night away. She could boogie like no one else. She was my wife’s sister, sure, but she and I had something special between us.—Marty 

SHE LOVED HER EXTENDED FAMILY
Particularly her sister’s children and grandchildren: Jen and Howard and their children Cameron and Ashley and Noah; and Jamie and his children Nathan and Arianna. 

From left: Cameron, Blake, Ashley, Nathan, Mom, Arianna, Noah, Brianna

Ashley, Cameron, and Noah had their own special bond with her. Ashley and Aunt would always enjoy playing dolls or Barbies together, especially when we would visit her at her home. Cameron would enjoy the cars and trucks that she played with him and looking for the special snacks/cookies at her house. She and Noah developed a very silly relationship making up the most ridiculous names for each other. Like when she called him peanut butter he’d call her hot dog. For a long time she called him meatball and he called her pizza.”—Jennifer  

The first time I met Aunt was at a Pesach Seder dinner at Jen’s parents’ house. I really didn’t know anyone that night other than Jen, and I was a little nervous. That’s when I met her. Aunt. I called her that right away. Even before I knew where my relationship with Jen was headed. Even before I called Sharon and Marty, “Mom and Dad.”  I called her “Aunt” because that’s what Jen called her. Never “Aunt Florine.” Just “Aunt.”  Aunt had a spirit about her that made you instantly comfortable around her. And yeah, she was, what’s the right word? She was…elegant.”—Howard

When I was a young girl, Aunt used to come spend the night at our home in New Jersey. I would always want to sleep with her because we would stay up talking for hours.  Our talks were always so much fun and I recall the time we discussed where the sun rises and sets. Her makeup and hair always had to be done and she dressed to impress. I will never forget her silky pink bathrobe that she wore to have her coffee in the mornings. We had an amazing bond between us:  whether we were near or far I could always count on her. One more thing: Aunt always wrote the best birthday cards!“—Jennifer

SHE LOVED THE BEACH
But she hated that it made her hair frizzy.

SHE LOVED TO HELP OUT
When Lisa and I bought a dilapidated 1871 miner’s cabin, she immediately volunteered to help us fix it up, even if that meant donning a pair of dirty jeans. Naturally, she wore a pair of protective gloves as she cleaned 130-year-old walls. God forbid she ruin her manicure.“—Victor  

Whenever we needed help, she was there. When Jen’s back went out Aunt didn’t think twice about coming to stay with us to help with our 21-month-old twins and 3-month-old. She was selfless.“—Howard

SHE LOVED WHEN PEOPLE SHE COOKED FOR ASKED FOR SECONDS

SHE HATED BEING REFERRED TO AS FLO
Her name was Florine and even though she never loved her own name, she despised any play on it. After Loy’s godmother Ellen called her Flo, she refused to speak to her.

SHE LOVED MAHJONG

SHE LOVED HER BESTIES CATHY AND LOIS AND BOBBI AND ESTHER
They threw some crazy pool parties. Yeah. They did.

SHE LOVED TO TRAVEL

SHE LOVED MEETING NEW MEN
And oh did she ever have plenty of suitors. She opened her heart to many, but none meant more to her than Keith Anderson. Keith loved her passionately, took her on trips, and kept her comfortable. That is, until one night in a bar in Las Vegas he met a woman who looked like his dead wife and, in a drunken haze, he married her. After that, my mother began a decades-long affair with her own boyfriend. It suited her just fine.

SHE LOVED FANCY CLOTHES
She especially loved apparel that made her feel spoiled and sexy, like furs and silk and cashmere. A long time ago she bought a pink satin robe and not a day went by when she didn’t wear it.

SHE LOVED TO TALK ON THE PHONE
Growing up we all just assumed the telephone was attached to her hand.

SHE LOVED COUPONS
It didn’t matter if she needed something—it was just the idea that she could get it at a discount that made it special. Her pantry was stuffed full of expired foods, as well as things she’d only eat if the world was ending and she wouldn’t be able to get to the store—things like sugar-free pudding and canned onions. Whenever you asked her why she purchased such items she’d say, “I had a coupon!”

SHE LOVED TO READ

SHE LOVED A GOOD SALAD
Mostly she loved a crunchy salad. Before she lost her ability to cook for herself, she made a salad every night. It always included the crispiest lettuce available. She’d add whatever the bottom drawer of her packed refrigerator would offer, whether it be purple cabbage or cold tasteless tomatoes, she’d throw it in. She never ever used bottled dressing but would make her own dressing of olive oil, red wine vinegar and lots of dried herbs, always adding a pinch of sugar before tossing it. Whenever she went out to eat she ordered a salad and, if it was in any way subpar (even one small piece of brown or wilted lettuce), she’d send it back and ask for a better one.

SHE LOVED TO LAUGH
And she did, often.

SHE LOVED BEING LOVED
And she was…fiercely.

80th Birthday

Florine Lorraine (Knapp) Kusel (born June 20, 1937), late of Boynton Beach, Florida, La Costa, CA, Edison, NJ, and New York, NY, died a painful and preventable death from Covid 19 on Friday, July 31, 2020.  She was a compassionate and generous daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt, cousin, and friend. She shall remain forever in our hearts and memories.

A HEAD OF HIS TIME

I.

On the advice of a Facebook friend, I took a bite of Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso” this week, and you know, what? It’s a really tasty sitcom.

Last night I watched the fourth episode which centered around a charity ball thrown by the lead female character, Rebecca, whose ex-husband, Rupert, cheated on her. Up until now Rupert’s been off-camera, only being described (derogatorily), or glimpsed in newsprint—over Rebecca’s shoulder—where we see the never-ending paparazzi shots of him cavorting with his young dalliances.

Rupert made his first real appearance at the ball, and, as expected, he was both dashing and dreadful. Halfway through the final scene I realized I recognized the actor playing him but had no idea who he was.

A quick search led me to the British actor, Anthony Stewart Head. As I scrolled through his long list of credits I was struck by two things:

1. Anthony Head has played a great many characters named Rupert in his career;
2. Although I’d seen many of his past performances, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew him from some place else. Somewhere more, um, intimate.

OCD as I am, I doggedly dug deeper, until at last I found it: that moment in my past when our worlds collided—or, rather, clinked.   

II.

In 1987, Nestlé ran an ad campaign for British television featuring Tony and Sharon, fictional characters who slowly fall in love after Sharon borrows a jar of Nescafé instant coffee from Tony. The 12 “episodes” of these soap opera-style commercials were a huge hit. The Gold Blend Couple, as they were known, were played by Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan. Here is the first episode which aired in England:

(And no: this is not where I knew Mr. Head from. Let me continue…)

In 1990, Nestlé brought the couple and their love story to American consumers, with a few variations. In the U.S. version, “Gold Blend” becomes “Taster’s Choice,” and Tony (now Michael) loses his accent. Here is the second episode which aired in the United States (the first seems to have disappeared):

Wanting to arouse more customer involvement, Nestlé launched their “Taster’s Choice Most Romantic First Date” contest. Participants were asked to describe, in 250 words or less, their most romantic first date. Presumably, it would involve coffee-drinking.

Here is my (entirely fictitious) entry:

As you might have guessed by now, I was one of the (10?) winners. I was flown to Los Angeles and put up in a fancy hotel (I cannot remember which one), where I enjoyed a lovely lobster lunch with none other than Mr. Head and Ms. Maughan.

I wish I could say it was an experience I will never forget because, well, I’d completely forgotten about it until last night.

END

Covidia

Crumbling.
Sunsets missed.
Hair alight and lighter
Cancel culture, covid clusterfucks
Parents up in arms
Teachers angry and afraid
Florida, where my mother rests
Totally in the dark
No longer afraid. I’m thinking it’s time
To move to New Zealand
To paint or
To clean the brushes for the painter so that he has time, more
Time to find the greens.

Exposed

I.

Even though I know that reading the news is bad for my mental health, I still open The New York Times every morning. After clicking on the Coronavirus Update I immediately scan the U.S. maps, and if I see Vermont in the “Where new cases are decreasing” section, I softly, silently, clap. Only then do I move on to the non-corona stories.

Recently, I skimmed through an article about Bayer agreeing to pay $10 billion to the more than 95,000 people who developed cancer after being exposed to Roundup, a popular weedkiller produced by Monsanto (Bayer purchased the company in 2018). I’d been following the story on and off and was glad to see that those sick farm workers were finally going to be compensated.

I was about to close the tab and go read about the rising cost of cheese, when it dawned on me: Roundup causes non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

I have that kind of cancer.

II.

The first time I met Leslie, my radiation oncologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, she was wearing a cute brown tunic dress and biker-type brown leather boots. I told her I liked her outfit and she said she liked my beaded bracelet. I could tell we were going to get along like friends who haven’t had to quarantine together. After some preliminary “blah blah your cancer blah blah electron radiation blah blah” discussion, she walked me over to a small room for my “simulation.” I was told to lie on my back on the CT scan table and hold still while a very handsome technician named Damien (really? Did his parents not watch The Omen?) draped a warm wet sheet of plastic mesh over my face. After what seemed like an hour (I think it was more like 15 minutes), I turned onto my stomach so that Damien could repeat the process. This video will make clear what happened (btw: Damien did not speak with a British accent and that guy at the end is far too jovial for my taste):

With the completed mask now screwed into place, they conveyed me in and out of a CT scan machine a few million times. The resultant images were to help Leslie and her team of purportedly intelligent physicists design my treatment.

Before saying goodbye, my good friend Leslie nonchalantly slid a consent form in front of me. On it were listed some side-effects that might ensue, including:

1. hair loss;
2. extreme tiredness;
3. the possibility of getting future cancers.

“I’m not signing this,” I said, looking at her. Her pager had just buzzed and she was reading it.

“Why not?” she replied. I could tell our friendship was about to be tested.

“You said I wouldn’t lose my hair.”

She sighed. “In all likelihood, with such a low dose of radiation, you won’t, but you still need to sign it.”

I hemmed. She glanced impatiently down at her hip, which soon buzzed again.

I hawed. She smiled at me. “I have to go.”

I signed. 

“I’ll see you back here in two weeks,” she said before rushing out the door.

III.

Dear Insert Lawyer’s Name Here,

Between 2008 and 2010 I lived in a co-housing community on 125 acres in Charlotte, Vermont. To the north of the community there was a dairy farm with accompanying corn fields. To the south, more corn fields. A strawberry farm bordered us on the east side. At the time I had a small child and was worried about her exposure to toxins so I reached out to both farmers and asked what exactly was spewing out of their tractor sprayers and crop dusters buzzing over our house. They were defensive but forthcoming: they used glyphosate (the herbicide in Roundup).  

In January of this year I was diagnosed with Cutaneous B-cell Follicular Lymphoma.

I have no idea if there is enough evidence to prove causation, but if so, let me know if you are interested in pursuing this.

Yours truly,

IV.

Leslie walked into the exam room. “The machine is ready to go so we should make this fast,” she said snapping open her laptop.

I was supposed to check in and proceed directly to the radiation treatment room, but a few days before my appointment I’d emailed my ever-growing list of questions and concerns to Leslie, and she’d generously agreed to a quick visit.

“The team wanted to radiate down through this area,” she said pointing to an image on the screen that might well have been a map of Turkey. “But I told them to redesign the plan so it’s brain-sparing.”

I blinked. “They wanted to go deep enough to zap my brain? Why would they choose to do that if they don’t have to?”

“What can I tell you? They’re just nerds who look at computers. They don’t think in human terms.”

I pictured a bunch of frat boys with beers in their hands maneuvering around my CT scan pics like they were shooting for the next level in Grand Theft Auto. “Let’s blast these mofo tumors, dude!”

“Huh,” I said noticing on the screen a large red band crossing the entire top of my head like a bloody caul. “Is all that red where the radiation is going? I thought you were just directing the beams at the individual tumors.”

“No, we changed our minds,” she said to the person who hates a last-minute change of plans. “They’re too diffuse and there might be more under the skin that we can’t see.”

I fell back into the chair and started to tear up. I touched my scalp, imagining nascent tumors budding through it, like baby goat horns. “Then you’re radiating my whole head?” I asked my ex-friend Leslie.

She nodded. “Yeah. It makes the most sense.” She looked at her watch and stood up. “Let’s go before we lose the room.”

The large “room” which held the enormous MACHINE was freezing. The technicians—a surly man named Trevor and a meek woman named Liz—told me to lie face-down on the table and make myself as comfortable as possible. They affixed the heretofore mentioned mask onto my head, making sure the nose holes were positioned properly—I would need to breath—before tightening the bolts; thus rendering me completely immobile.

From behind the safety glass in the other room Trevor spoke into a microphone, warning me each time something new was going to happen, like, “We’re taking an x-ray now just to check our placement,” or “We’re raising you up a little more,” or “Is this music okay or do you want something different?”

I could only answer with a thumbs up, which I did, even though the very bad 80’s music was anything but relaxing.

I sensed the table rising then lowering then twisting around. I saw flashes of light through my closed eyes. I breathed—in for 5, out for 5. I pretended I was getting a massage and that my face was resting through that soft hole at the end of a massage table. I felt the masseuse’s hands caressing my shoulders, my tense back, my—and then Trevor said, “Okay, here we go. It’ll be about 30 seconds,” and I braced for it, having no idea what I was actually bracing for, but suddenly there was a light so bright it was as if an atomic bomb had exploded before my eyes.

And then it was done and someone lowered the table and someone else unbolted me and someone else helped me off the table and someone else handed me my purse and said, “See you back here tomorrow for round 2!”

V.

Low likelihoods aside, my hair began falling out two weeks later. It wasn’t like what happens to people who get chemo and become totally bald: only the follicles in the irradiated parts of my scalp died. Picture Christian Bale in “American Hustle.”

Since Blue Cross covers the cost, I figured I’d splurge on a deluxe wig prosthetic hairpiece, but after it arrived and I tried it on, I cried. Sure, it was luxurious and it hid my exposed pate (as well as my new gray hairs), but the clips tugged on the few remaining hairs I had and…honestly, my head couldn’t stomach it.

I watched 3,478 videos—most of them made by stunning Muslim women—that demonstrated nifty ways to tie a turban with a scarf. I learned how to make an easy head covering out of a t-shirt.

This is the wig

A few friends came to my aid with some fashionable fixes: Lori sent me a cool summer-colored Boho Bandeau. Marcella bought me a silky flowered scarf and a very chic fedora. Karin mailed—all the way from Australia—an Aboriginal Art sun hat.

To be sure, losing my hair has depressed the heck out of me. I feel as if my feminine side got ghosted. I avoid looking at my reflection in the mirror. I don’t go out and see people, but hey—I wouldn’t anyway since we’re in the midst of a pandemic.

Timing is everything, right?

VI.

All four law firms I contacted told me that unless I actually used Roundup, there was no way to prove causation. Being that I’m not a litigiously-inclined person, I wasn’t too disappointed. I mean, I wasn’t hoping to get money. I was just hoping to find some answers.

VII.

“Oh yes, this looks beautiful,” Joi, my dermatologist, pronounced this past Monday as she ran her hand across my now-smooth skull. “Excellent results.”

“Does this mean I’m cured?” I said, quickly retying my scarf.

She frowned. “No. There’s still a fifty percent chance you’ll get more tumors, but probably not in the same place.”

“Hunh.” I glanced over at Kevin, my oncologist who sat typing on his laptop. “If they do come back I’m guessing you’re going to suggest I ‘mow the lawn,’” I said, quoting him with a smirk. Back when we’d first met, Kevin had strongly advised I get four infusions of a monoclonal antibody drug. He felt it would clear my entire system of the cancer: it would “mow the lawn.” Given the very scary side effects, I had adamantly refused.

He nodded. “Right now you’re fine, but if it comes back it could be a more serious form of lymphoma. “And,” he said, adding his pièce de résistance, “Rituximab won’t make your hair fall out.”

As if reading my mind, Joi put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Your hair will grow back, Lisa. It’ll take a few months, but I did see some tiny ones just now.”

I shrugged, feeling only slightly mollified. I knew it would be a while before the tumors returned, if ever. I knew that my cancer was an indolent, not-so-deadly sort. I knew I had to take what good I’d been offered and be grateful. Okay, so I lost my hair, but, as Loy pointed out, “It’s way better than losing your life.”

END

Diamonds Are Forever

diamond2

When, at age thirteen, I asked my parents if I could get my ears pierced, they immediately said yes. They knew that most of my girlfriends had already gotten their lobes shot through with an air gun, and since both my mother and father were raised in poverty, they weren’t about to deprive their daughter from having what everyone else had.

For my father, though, what everyone else had was not going to be good enough.

I would need to have better, or, if possible, the best. Meaning that while Dina and Debbie and Jennifer were gleefully displaying ears newly-adorned with gold studs, silver stars or bronze balls, my father insisted I wear diamonds, given that he was in a position to easily afford them. (His arrest for wire fraud and subsequent bankruptcy were still years away.)

“But I don’t want diamonds,” I whined to my mother after we pulled into the Topanga Mall parking lot. I wanted tiny gold balls, or maybe even hoops. I had no idea if you could get hoops but it was the 1970s and hoops were all the rage. lrsomv_1_-_linda_ronstadt_-_courtesy_of_greenwich_entertainmentI wanted to be part of that rage. Cher wore them and she had about the cutest husband ever. Linda Ronstadt rocked her huge hoops. I would rock them too.

“Your father wants you to have diamonds,” my mom said unbuckling her seat belt. “Stop complaining and get out of the car.”

We walked into Nordstrom whereupon my mother became a woman possessed, lurching toward the women’s blouses, rifling through them as if her life depended on it. I ambled along from rack to rack, watching her slam hangers aside as if they somehow offended her. She’d hold up a shirt, sigh, then cram it back in, her obsessive yen for neatness shunned. She forgot I was even there, standing impatiently a few feet behind her. Out of habit, I began to rub my right earlobe.

“You realize after today you won’t be able to do that anymore,” my mother declared, surprising me yet again with those eyes she had in the back of her head.

“What?” I said. “What won’t I be able to do anymore?”

“Rub your ears,” she said as she headed over to pants. “Once there’s an earring in there, no more.”

No more rubbing?

*

When I was little, like four or five, my mother caught me with my hand down my pants, playing with my vagina. Rubbing it. “Why do you keep doing that?” she’d asked in a slightly irritated voice. “Are you itchy?”

“I like it. It’s soft,” I replied. In retrospect, it’s possible that I might have been searching out pleasures beyond the obvious tactile ones. In fact, it’s quite normal for two to six-year-olds to touch themselves “down there.” But what did my mother know from normal?

“Well, it’s not okay to do that,” she’d stated. “It’s a bad habit.”

What did I, a small happy child, know from bad habits?

“Touch your ears instead. They’re just as soft.”

“My ears?”

“Yes,” she said putting my tiny hand on my tiny lobe. “Rub this. See? It’s nice, right?”

It was nice. Quite nice.

*

One hour and an overpriced black cashmere sweater later, we headed into the mall. No fewer than five times did I have to stop my mother from entering another store before we finally reached Kay Jewelers. While my mother spoke with the salesgirl, I bent over the glass case of earrings, excitedly surveying the many choices. When I saw a pair of sparkly azure-colored balls, I knew they’d look marvelous contrasted against my dark hair. “These,” I said calling my mother over. “I want to get these.”

My mother stood next to me and peered into the case. I could smell joythe JOY Parfum my father insisted she wear. I knew it was one of the world’s most expensive perfumes because he made a point of telling people that whenever he had the chance. To be honest, it actually smelled pretty fantastic.

“No, come over here,” she said dragging me over to the case filled with diamond studs. She pointed to a pair of small diamond earrings. “May we see these please?” she said to the lady behind the counter. The lady took them out and gently placed them on a black velvet pad as if showing off the Hope Diamond. When my mother put her left hand out to touch them the young woman gave out a small yelp. “Wow! Your ring. Whoa.”

Whoa, indeed.

*

One day, when I was ten years old, I stayed home from school because I was sick. I remember being in bed contentedly flipping through my Archie comic books when I heard my mother shriek as if she’d suddenly confronted a snake. I threw off my pink duvet and ran into my parent’s bedroom. “What’s wrong Mom?” I asked when I saw her tearing the pillows and sheets off the bed while frantically screaming “Oh my God! Oh my God!” over and over. For a few scared seconds I wondered if she’d lost her mind. My crazy kid imagination pictured her being taken away in a straightjacket, leaving me to be raised by my father, or—worse—our mean housekeeper whose name I can no longer recall.

“Mommy!” I yelled, throwing myself on the bed. “What are you doing?”

“My ring. I can’t find my ring!!”

“Oh.”

“Help me look for it. Oh my God, your father is going to kill me.”

My feverish imagination conjured images of my father—who had quite the temper—stabbing my mother in the chest, blood spattering everywhere. Since I loved her more than anything in the world, I knew I would have to help save her. “Tell me what happened so we can figure this out,” I said calmly touching her arm.

My touch was enough to snap her out of her frenzy. She sat on the edge of the disheveled bed. “Let’s see. I was in bed watching TV,” she said thinking out loud, “and I always take off my ring and put it on the night table before I go to sleep.” Even I, an adolescent with a barely formed brain, discerned the inherent dangers of sleeping with diamond ring pica 7.54-carat marquis-shaped diamond ring. A sudden bodily shift in the middle of the night might gouge out an eye, or, at the very least, shred a sheet. Hence, the nightly removal.

My father had given my mother the ring only a few months ago for their 15th wedding anniversary. It was yet another in a long line of extravagant objects he bought because he could. roooooBefore the ring he’d gifted himself a Maserati Mistral. Between the car and the ring there was the carpeted treehouse from FAO Schwarz. And the thoroughbred race horse. And the Chagall painting. And the gold Rolex watch.

“I just don’t get where it can be. I put it right there!” she said, pointing at the empty bedside table.

I closed my eyes and tried to wish the ring into magically reappearing and when I opened them I saw my mother jump up. “Wait!! I ate a peach. I ate a peach!” she screamed rushing out of the room. Wondering what on earth a peach had to do with the price of tea in China, I ran after her, almost tripping down the long flight of stairs. When I reached the kitchen I saw that she’d upended the garbage pail onto the kitchen floor and was now furiously clawing through the remains of last night’s dinner. I dropped down to my knees. “What are you doing, Mom?” Again, my worries about her sanity intensified.

She continued pawing at rolled up dirty napkins, ripping them apart before tossing them aside. “I ate a peach, sweetie,” she said, finally noting my presence. “I rolled the pit up in a napkin. Maybe by accident I—” and suddenly there it was, her enormous ring, rolled up inside a white paper napkin. Next to the brown mottled peach pit, the diamond positively glowed. As did my mother.

*

Sure, my diamond studs were pretty enough, but after wearing them for a few months, I got bored by their staidness. Here, I’d already given up comfort rubbing. I didn’t want to also give up being able to express my individuality. For God’s sake, I was a teenager.

“I’m gonna get some new earrings,” I declared one morning at breakfast. “Something dangly.”

My father looked up from the newspaper and shook his head. “No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am. Diamonds are so dull.”

Out of the corner of my eye I caught my mother gazing longingly at her own diamond. Dull, it was not.

“We only agreed to let you get your ears pierced if you wore diamonds,” my father said, “and they weren’t cheap. You will NEVER TAKE THEM OUT.”

After many days of whining and crying and threatening to toss the studs and let my holes close up, a compromise was reached: I would keep a diamond in my left ear and wear whatever I wanted in my right ear.

*

Decades later, I still haven’t removed the diamond from my left ear, and my collection of single earrings has grown considerably.

earrings

Whenever people discover my one-earring-wearing proclivity, they are quick to offer me their lone stud or drop or hoop or dangle earring, although the conversation that follows usually goes something like this:

“This was from my favorite pair of earrings. I’m only lending it to you. If I ever find the other one, you have to promise to give this back.”

“I promise,” I always reply, although I’ve yet to return a single earring in 40 years.

*

Not long after my father got involved with “La Costra Nostra” and lost his fortune, my parents divorced. Dad either sold or put into hock most of our accumulated valuables. He tried to convince Mom to sell the diamond to help make ends meet for me and my brothers, but my mother adamantly refused. “The ring stays in the family,” she insisted. “When I die, it’ll go to Lisa.”

“I don’t want it, Mom,” I said to her after she made that pronouncement. “It’s hideous. I’ll never wear it.”

“So sell it and buy a house,” she replied, shrugging. She didn’t care so much about creating a legacy: she just didn’t want the man who cheated on her for thirty years to have it.

Being as she wasn’t able to afford to insure it, she kept it in her safe deposit box. Only when she attended an event that required elegance—whether it be a wedding or bar mitzvah or a date with a new gentleman—would my mother take the ring out of the vault and slip it onto her bare finger.

*

Four years ago I flew to California to pack up my mother’s house and move her to Florida. Most of her friends had died, and she wanted to be closer to her sister, who lives there. My brothers and I had been suspecting something was off about my mother for some months, but during the ten days I spent with her I became fairly certain her brain was faltering. At that point I knew nothing about dementia, but I knew my mother’s suddenly inability to balance her checkbook was strange indeed. I was concerned enough that I talked her into letting me take control of her finances. We headed down to Wells Fargo and put my name on all her accounts, and, while she was getting her hair done next door, I cleaned out her safe deposit box, quickly grabbing everything and stuffing it into a plastic bag.

On the plane back to Vermont I clung nervously to the bag, and when I landed I drove immediately to my bank and opened a safe deposit box. Alone in the small well-lit room I opened the bag. I found her birth certificate; a diamond-and-sapphire Piaget watch; two pearl necklaces; a ruby ring I never saw her wear; assorted cheap rings and bracelets; DIAMONDand, of course, the RING. Just for the heck of it, I put it on my hand and snapped a photo of it.

I was about to scrunch up the empty bag and slide the metal box into the empty slot, when I realized there was something else still inside it. I reached in and pulled out a small blue velvet bag tied tight with a gold-colored string. Anticipating another treasure; one more valuable bauble that I will someday sell to help pay for the very expensive memory care facility my mother presently resides in, I untied the braided string and shook the bag. Out dropped a small diamond stud, the earring I’d long ago left behind.

*

It’s been a rough couple of months for the entire planet. To be sure, every one of us has some sort of cross to bear during this nightmare—some more burdensome than others. After I wrote about a few of my own crosses, a great many folks private-messaged or emailed me words of encouragement, love, support. susanSusan N., an acquaintance from Nevada City who I haven’t seen in more than a dozen years, did something unexpected: she mailed me a package of single earrings. That she even remembered I wear only one earring was shocking enough, but that, out of the blue she took the time to find, pack and send me that pink box full of treasures, made my heart—and right ear—shine just a little bit brighter.

Thank you, Susan.

Inside Out

introvert

I. DECEMBER 2019, BC: “Wednesdays With Margot”

I’m an insider.

By that I don’t mean I’m part of a small knowing faction of people. I belong to no esoteric subset of society. I am not an inside trader. I have no inside knowledge.

Put simply: I spend the majority of my time inside. I do this because:

woman

  1. I am preternaturally an introverted antisocial homebody.
  2. I work from a home office.
  3. When I exercise I do so in my basement. I am kind of intimidated by gyms: all those rock-hard humans pumping and grunting and sweating…
  4. I live in Vermont where winter lasts for 398 days—or so it often seems and:
    ~I am afraid of falling on the icy sidewalks and breaking my wrist, effectively quashing my ability to write;
    ~I do not trust snow tires;
    ~I do not ski.
  5. I deplore having to pick out something acceptable to wear. As a stay-at-home writer, my daily attire resembles what other people wear when they’re home sick with the flu.
  6. On the whole, I don’t like group activities: I shun yoga classes. I belong to no sangha.
  7. Outside is scary. So many people. So much noise! All that eye contact and small talk I might have to make!

Okay, so all hyperbole aside, I do venture out now and again, but I need a good reason to. Some of these reasons include:

  1. Food shopping. I try to limit this to once/week.
  2. Going to Goodwill. I love Goodwill—you never know what treasures you will find in other people’s castoffs. I once found a signed copy of my first novel at the local Goodwill.
  3. Restaurant eating. I will never ever turn down a chance to dine out. Being waited on and not having to load the dishwasher is, for me, heaven.
  4. Traveling to places beyond Vermont—i.e.: flying to Florida to see my mother.
  5. Volunteering for the food shelf.
  6. Plays, concerts, etc. I don’t think twice about dolling up and heading out to see live performances, even if it means going alone. I’m partial to symphonies and musicals.
  7. Lectures. Not really—I’m lying.
  8. Book groups. Whoa, what? I don’t actually belong to any, but every now and then I’m invited to speak about my memoir. I normally fret and dry heave and change my outfit 17 times before I’m out the door.
  9. Author readings, but only if it’s someone I know and wish to support (see below).
  10. Bike riding along Lake Champlain.
  11. Occasionally meeting friends for lunch or coffee.
  12. In particular, meeting my friend Margot for lunch or coffee.

Margot is a writer. Besides being an associate editor for Vermont’s groovy independent weekly, she bylines terrific book and movie reviews for them. Oh, and she’s also the author of two young adult thrillers. She recently let Loy read an advanced copy of her newest novel, The Glare, (set to be released July 2020) and Loy deemed it “really scary and really good.”

Speaking of Loy: on Tuesday nights she works at Leunig’s Petit Bijou, a small semi-heated kiosk in downtown Burlington. It fancies LoyLeunigsitself a French bistro and beyond selling espresso drinks and pastries, its Francophile-inspired fare includes beignets, poutine (which is French Canadian and, honestly, I don’t get why it exists), pre-wrapped duck pate and other assorted sandwiches, as well as an intriguing mix of salads, many of which are festooned with fruit.

Every Tuesday night, after she closes, Loy is supposed to toss out all the food deemed less than fresh, but instead she brings it home, whereupon I immediately dig through the bags, culling the jambon et buerre baguettes, stale scones, and wilted salads from the perfectly edible remains.

And then I email Margot.

Why Margot?

Because Margot is another shut-in insider who isn’t keen to interact with other humans. Like me, she works from her home office. When she exercises, she dons headphones and walks around her condominium complex (3 circuits = 1 mile) while listening to her favorite podcasts. Once a week she takes a one-on-one ice-skating lesson.

But on Wednesdays Margot has to leave her house for a mandatory editorial meeting. As long as she’s dressed and already outside, Margot is almost always up for getting together, especially when I tell her about the food bounty I’ve scored. I mean, who doesn’t love a free lunch?

Margot is also a skittish driver and hates going anywhere in the city where parking is problematic. The local food co-op has plentiful parking, but more importantly, it has cutlery.

And packets of oil and vinegar.

I try to get there a bit early so that by the time Margot finds me in the small airy café, I’ve set two places with paper napkins, plastic forks and knives, and laid out our feast of leftovers. For the next two or three hours we talk books and writing and publishing and life and editing and movies and cats and family dramas while taking bites of one salad then another; eating half a turkey sandwich before moving on to the ahi tuna and then to the roast beef. With our coffees, we plunder the brownies and eclairs. Around us I sense the other patrons eyeing our food orgy with a mix of suspicion and jealousy, but I don’t care because when I’m outside with Margot, I feel both empowered and at ease. We relate to one another’s social discomfiture and writerly frustrations. We have no trouble making eye contact. She offers me intelligent and inspiring advice about my novel-in-progress, and—even though she tries to demur—I expound on the reasons I admire the shit out of her many talents. And when, at last, we walk out together to the parking lot, neither of us feels the need to hug goodbye.

beter

II. MARCH 2020, AC: “Internity”

I just sent Margot an email, checking in. She’s concerned about her sister and mother, her job, and the public relations plans surrounding the launch of her novel. I didn’t have to ask her how she’s doing being isolated because this new normal our fellow earthlings are presently experiencing is pretty much status quo for the likes of us insiders.

I mean, yeah, in some respects it’s still the same:

  1. I’m the same unsociable wench today that I was three months ago.
  2. I’m still working from my home office, but now I have to close the door to block out the sound of whatever Netflix series my daughter is streaming.
  3. I’m still hitting the basement gym: I’ve got a spin bike, a treadmill, multi-pound weights and a thick black horse mat. FYI: I follow along with Fitness Blender and Heather Robertson for most of my workouts (both are free).
  4. Icy sidewalks and eye contact aside, the thought of going outside is scarier now than ever before.
  5. Other than changing my underwear, I’ve had on the same pair of gray leggings and the same flannel shirt for 5 days now.socks

But it’s also very very different:

  1. I’m not going grocery shopping anymore. We’ll soon be needing more eggs, milk, gin, and flour, but I believe we have enough food stocked in our larder to hold us over until the president stops referring to the pandemic as the “Chinese Virus,” or until people stop dying from it: whichever comes first.
  2. Goodbye Goodwill.
  3. Takeout food only. We are doing what we can to support local restaurants by getting a few of our meals to-go. Invention being the daughter of necessity, curbside pickup is the order of the day; even the library is asking patrons to wait outside while they bring your checked-out books to you.
  4. All bucket lists have been upended in the sand and travel is now a thing of the past. Tragically, I am not sure when or if I will ever see my mother again.
  5. The food shelf is in dire need of help, but I have, regretfully, chosen not to continue retrieving food from grocery stores for them.
  6. The fat lady has sung and the curtains have been drawn. Still, I’m gladdened by the generous spirit of so many artists around the world who are sharing their work on social media.
  7. Speaking of social media: I used to scroll through the Big 3 a few times a day, but now I find myself constantly getting swept up by the tsunami of homemade bread pics, masterful memes, global news and personal tales. I’ve clicked the ANGRY emoji so often lately I’m tempted to suggest to Mark Zuckerberg that everyone be given a lifetime allotment of them and once you run out you can no longer be angry—even at the photos of those selfish deny/can’t die spring breakers in Florida.

floridaspringbreakers

Now that (almost) the entire planet has joined the insider club, I’m no longer an outlier. My heretofore isolatory behavior has become socially acceptable, if not downright mandatory.

We are all of us, alone together.

And frankly, it sucks. It stinks. It’s impossibly, ineffably surreal.

It’s also an incredibly inconvenient time to be diagnosed with cancer.

Erm…

In January, after two biopsies of what I presumed were innocuous but annoying red lumps on my scalp, I found out I have non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. More precisely: Primary cutaneous follicle center lymphoma (PCFCL), a type of B cell lymphoma (PCBCL).

For the most part, it’s considered an indolent cancer.

indolent
in-dl-uhnt ]

adjective
having or showing a disposition to avoid exertion; slothful: an indolent person.

Pathology. causing little or no pain; inactive or relatively benign: an indolent ulcer that is not painful and is slow to heal.

This means that if the cancer is confined only to my scalp, the prognosis is generally excellent. But, if the tumors on my head turned out to be merely the—excuse the pun—tip of the iceberg,  it is far less excellent. In order to find out what lay beyond, the docs needed to dig deep inside me.

First, they took a lot of my blood.

Then they shot radioactive glucose through my veins before strapping my arms down and feeding me into a PET-CT scan machine.

The news was good: all 14 blood tests were normal and there was no sign of cancer in my lymph nodes or organs. But, it just so happens that in about 10% of cases, this drowsy cancer acts like it just downed a case of Red Bull, kicking into high gear and Franken-forming into a more deadly systemic B-cell lymphoma.

We were all in agreement: the sooner I get these pesky bumps off my head the better.

Did I mention that this kind of cancer is extremely rare and few docs exist who know anything about it? Did I also mention that there is no set guidelines for how best to get rid of the tumors?

The radiation oncologist I met with said 15 rounds of high-dose radiation to my entire head would do the trick. It would also cause brain damage and permanent alopecia (baldness).

Many second opinions later I found a smart dermatologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock who more or less wrote the (very thin) book on this cancer. She suggested low-dose rate brachytherapy to only the tumors.

“Why irradiate perfectly good skin?” she stressed before walking out the door following our hour-long consultation. “With this cancer there’s a 40% chance the tumors will come back, but most likely in different parts of your scalp. We want to be able to radiate those when they do.”

Because of this pandemic nightmare, all non-emergency medical procedures are on hold, including treating lazy-ass tumors. As much as I love being an insider, a homebody, a sane and satisfied shut-in, I am anxious to get outside ASAP and zap these motherfucker rogue B-cells.

Until that happens I guess I’m staying inside, like I usually do. And, just for the heck of it, I might even change my clothes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of Too Many

Jessica Rose Phillips is a British Labour Party politician. Each year, before the House of Commons, she reads aloud the names of women from the UK who were killed by their male partner or ex-partner. There were 111 names on the 2019 list, including my friend Lindsay de Feliz, who was allegedly strangled to death by her husband and stepsons.

 

GRINGA

TUESDAY: “Missing”

I’m sitting on a comfortable-enough turquoise chair in the bright expansive lobby of an assisted living-slash-memory care facility in Wellington, Florida. My mother is next to me, pretending to read a cooking magazine. I watch her turn a page and stare intently at a photograph of roasted butternut squash on a pretty blue platter.

“What is that a picture of, Mom?” I ask, pointing to the golden half-moon slices. “What are those?”

Her mouth contorts into a crooked grin. I can almost hear the slow grinding of her brain as it tries to identify what used to be one of her favorite foods. I glance over at Violette*, who is here because she’s hoping I hire her to be my mother’s part-time companion. She’s eyeing my mother with a patient smile, but she says nothing. Andy, the owner of the agency who brought Violette to meet me, is also quiet.

After a few frustrating seconds, my mother drops the magazine onto the table, slouches back against the chair and closes her eyes. She is tuckered out from all the effort.

“Now then,” I begin. “Tell me a little about yourself, Violette.”

Violette, who is from Venezuela, talks without stopping for ten minutes. I hear about her work with “little children” as well as “the old people with the dementia.” She tells me, “I am very very good at conversating with people.” At no point does she address my mother, who is now sitting upright, interested enough in the conversation that she has opened her eyes.

Violette is probably nice enough to keep company with my mother for a few hours a week but I’m concerned she won’t be forceful enough to get her to take a walk or paint a picture. “The memory care in this facility is bad,” I explain (albeit quietly, since potential residents and their family members are curiously milling about). “All the energy goes to the assisted living side. There’s no natural light in there,” I announce, gesturing toward the locked door of the memory section. “They do a lot of television watching.”

I wait for Violette to ask more questions or say, “that’s too bad,” and when she doesn’t, I continue on. “I need someone to, you know, keep her stimulated. Bring her outside where there is sunshine and other people she can talk to, or to one of the musical performances. They have a lot of live music in assisted living.”

“Yes,” Violette says. “I can do this for your mother.”

“Great.” I’m satisfied-ish, even though I know there is another woman outside waiting to be interviewed. “You can work Sundays, right? It’s totally dead here on Sundays.”

She looks at Andy and frowns. “No. I can no come here on Sundays.”

***

Perla* dawdles through the entrance with her head down and hands in her pockets. She’s a tiny but muscular Honduran woman in her fifties. Her black hair is cut short and she sports thick black-framed glasses. I like that she’s wearing street clothes (as opposed to Violette’s scrubs), but she looks as if she’d rather be anywhere else but here. I stand up and extend my hand. “I’m Lisa. Nice to meet you.”

She nods and looks from me to Andy to my mother. “This is my mother, Florine,” I say. Perla puts her hand on my mother’s shoulder and leans in. “Very nice to meet you, Miss Florine. I am Perla.” My mother is entranced.

I am no more than two questions into the interview when Perla interrupts me and says, “I am not here to talk about me. I am here to talk about your mother. You tell me what she needs.”

***

During lunch I ask my mother what she thinks of Perla.

“Why?”

“Because she’s going to be hanging out with you a couple times a week.”

My mother smiles. “I like her. She’s very interactive.”

This is the first polysyllabic word I’ve heard my mother utter in months. I take a bite of my salad and breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve made a good decision.

***

As per usual, I’m billeted at my aunt and uncle’s manicured manse in Boynton Beach. They are in California for the week so I have the place to myself. After working out in the fancy gym, I scarf down the container of now-indefinable mush which was—two hours earlier—a thoughtfully-curated collection of meat and veg gleaned from a Whole Foods’ buffet. I shower and climb into bed, exhausted.

Before turning to the novel I’m reading, I open Facebook to see if anyone’s posted anything of interest and notice a colorful poster displaying a photo of a friend of mine. It’s in Spanish:

missingposter

“What’s this about?” I say to the silent guest room. I click over to We Love Memoirs, the 5,000-plus-member private group where I first met my friend and find this:

It is with great sadness and anxiety that we heard today that fellow author, Facebook friend and WLM member Lindsay De Feliz has gone missing. I have shared the details here in the slight hope that somebody might know something that could help. I know all our thoughts are with her family. 😢♥️

Below the post there are more than 200 comments from people praying she is found safe and sound. I add my own comment:

We just spoke last week. I’m am devastated but will remain hopeful that she had a bit of a memory jag or something related to the head injury and got lost or…? She and I have become such good (online) friends. I have every body part crossed that she is found soon and she is found safe. This is just so shocking. Can someone who speaks Spanish not make contact with Danilo and keep us all posted???

***

We Love Memoirs is an aptly-named online community of readers and writers of memoirs. Its members live all over the planet and oh, but they love to share everything from daily trivia and news to stories and pictures of pets and travel adventures. Occasionally, someone will post a review of a fellow-member’s memoir. (Self-promotion of any sort is strictly verboten.)

Back in October, 2018, a writer named Lindsay de Feliz posted a link to her blog with short smart reviews of eight memoirs, mine included. When I DMed (Direct Messaged) Lindsay to thank her for her flattering critique she asked me if I had any interest in reading her memoir about being an expat in the Dominican Republic. In all honesty I didn’t want to—I had too many other books I needed to get through—but, of course, I said I’d love to.

Two months went by before I finally, guiltily, opened “What About Your Saucepans?” and I drank it down in one gulp. Lindsay’s story was as shocking as it was gripping: a successful British businesswoman leaves her husband and comfy life and moves to the Dominican Republic to become a scuba diving instructor. Soon after, she marries Danilo, a local man fourteen years her junior; more or less adopts his three sons from previous marriages (as well as a rather charming street urchin); rescues numerous homeless animals; finances Danilo’s run for mayor—becoming mired in the alarmingly corrupt and violent local government—and then, during a home robbery, gets shot in the throat and nearly dies.

I was dumbstruck. Here, I’d been chatting amicably for months with this woman about her rescue animals, Dominican food, the quality of local rum, never once realizing what she’d gone through! I DMed her immediately, frantically waving my hands around, exclaiming my shock (not that she could see me doing that); asking her a zillion follow-up questions. I wanted to know if she missed scuba diving (the bullet went into her lungs, effectively destroying her breathing capacity). I wondered how she could be so cavalier about her neighbors poisoning her dogs. I was nonplussed that Danilo planned to run for mayor again after what they’d endured during the first election.

Lindsay appreciated my sympathy but laughed at my outrage. “This is life in the DR,” she said. Sure, it could be unpredictable, even dangerous, but there was no other place she wanted to be and—to be sure—plenty of people were glad she felt that way.

***

Before I go to sleep I DM Lindsey. “Where are you?” I write.

WEDNESDAY: “Vetting”

Perla has agreed to meet me this morning at my mother’s facility for a two-hour “training” session. I want to make sure she understands what I expect of her before she starts working on a regular basis. I also want to learn more about her. After yesterday’s short interview, Andy said he couldn’t access her prior jobs due to confidentiality, but she was well-liked by previous agencies. Just for the heck of it I decide to google her, but before I open a new tab I check Facebook to see if Lindsay’s been found yet. Hundreds more comments about her disappearance have been posted; many of which terrify me.

***

Once Lindsay figured out how to navigate life in the DR, she went out of her way to help others do the same. She was particularly keen on warning single foreign women about the dangers of jumping blindly into relationships with Dominican men they’d met online or whilst on holiday in the DR. There was a good chance, according to Lindsay, the men were nothing more than a Sanky Panky, “the term used for those who go out with foreign women with the sole objective of taking their money or to use them to leave the country.” She also made it a point to draw attention to the high rate of domestic violence in her adopted country, at one point citing:

According to Oxfam, nearly a quarter of all women between the ages of 14 and 49 have suffered abuse with the number of women killed increasing each year to around 250. To put it another way, every 36 hours a woman is murdered in the DR and often by her partner, her ex partner or a jealous lover.

But Lindsay didn’t have to worry about such things: Danilo loved her and would do anything to keep her safe and happy.

***

As I tour Perla around the facility, pointing out the assisted living art room, their sunny spacious living room, and enormous two-story dining room, I try not to stare at her nose. Earlier, when I searched her name, I came across two articles dating back to 2002 detailing the night her drunk boyfriend—who was thirteen years her junior—smashed her head with a beer bottle before biting off half her nose. A plastic surgeon agreed to fix her face for free. “She had to pull her cheek out to open her nostril,” [the doctor] said. “She had lost 50 percent of her breathing…I was shocked that a man could do this to a woman. It’s barbaric.”

Now that I’m aware of her traumatic past, I am slightly unsettled. On one hand I suspect Perla no longer takes shit from anyone, which is a great quality in a caregiver. On the other hand, it occurs to me that not once have I seen her smile.

***

This past February, while Danilo and a houseguest were out for a run, a man came in through an unlocked door of Lindsay’s secluded mountain home in Moncion and attempted to kill her. I’d DMed Lindsay the moment I read about the vicious attack, but it wasn’t until some weeks later, when she was out of the hospital and on the mend, that she replied. There was a lot, she said, she didn’t want to share publicly. She told me she’d suffered a traumatic brain injury, had no feeling on one side of face, had a droopy smile, and was having memory issues. “I go to the loo and forget why I am there,” she wrote.

I knew they’d caught the suspect and asked Lindsay what happened to him. After I promised I wouldn’t freak out, she said Danilo paid the police to shoot him in the head and bury him.

But what are you telling people who ask?

I just say it is in the hands of the police,” she replied. “That’s what Danilo told me to say.”

THURSDAY: “Breathing”

It’s my birthday today. The first birthday I’ve ever spent alone. In an act of utter selfishness and self-indulgence, I decide I will skip visiting my mother—who has no idea what birthdays are anymore—and have myself an adventure.

After Face-timing my people in Vermont, and thanking them for the cards they snuck into my suitcase, I turn my phone to DO NOT DISTURB. I do not wish to be interrupted all day by countless birthday calls and texts from friends and family. I don’t want to listen to my brothers sing to me. I take a vow not to check email or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.

I will have a day of uninterrupted peace.

***

I ask the woman at the ticket counter at the Morikame Museum and Japanese Gardens if they offer rain discounts as it is, at the moment, pouring. She laughs and says no.

“What about birthday discounts? It’s my birthday today,” I beam, as if it’s a national holiday.

“Are you a senior? You save two dollars if you’re over 65.”

I gasp. “Do I look like I’m over 65?”

“No, you look like you’re, what, like 45?”

“You’re the sweetest person ever,” I say as I hand over my credit card.

***

With a map in my hand, I head outside, open my umbrella, and cross the bridge.

I move slowly, deliberately, as if practicing a walking meditation. Now and then I stop and take a photograph or video of a waterfall, the shimmering saffron-colored scales of the koi in the lake. Flowers.

IMG_1438

I spend a long time watching a bamboo shishi-odoshi fill, empty, then fill again.

I am the only person strolling the gardens this morning. Whether it’s due to the incessant drizzle or because the Goddess of Birthday Wishes grants me the silence I so crave, I care not. I am happy.

Two hours later I find a table in the mostly-empty café and order a bento box. As my chopsticks gambol from the sushi square to the gyoza square and then over to the teriyaki square, I watch the rain dance on the lake.

IMG_1449

Afterwards, my fingers laze across the myriad Japanese trinkets in the gift shop,finally coming to rest on two snow globe Buddhas. Since I cannot choose between the silver and the gold one,   budd  I leave empty-handed, $18 richer.

***

I drive to the ocean where I spread a towel across the wet sand. I watch the waves the trees the birds. Other than the lifeguard in his tower behind me, there is no one else around.

***

I drive to a taco truck and buy enough food to feed a Mormon family. I get it to go.

***

I pass through the security gates, drop the food at the house and walk over to the lap pool. There must be a live show tonight in the clubhouse because the enormous parking lot is full and all three pools are humanless. I swim for about twenty minutes, keeping my eyes fixed on the black line running along the pool’s bottom. I hear nothing but the sounds of my hands slapping the surface, the quickening of my breaths. I wrap a large white towel around my body and settle on a lounge chair. The rain has stopped and the dusk sky is fraught with bulging purple clouds.

***

I eat three tacos (chorizo, al pastor, carne asada) and half the container of greasy cheesy beans in front of the television. Because no birthday should ever go without a birthday wish, I rummage around my aunt’s drawers until I find a pack of candles. There are no cakes or cookies or sweets to be found anywhere so I improvise.

At last I settle my most contented self into the comfy bed, prop a pillow against the wall and grab my laptop and phone. I’ve spent the day completely—blissfully—alone. Now, though, I intend to drown in human attention. First, I open yahoo and read about a dozen birthday emails from friends who don’t use social media (good for them), and delete a few sent from PR desks (thank you, Queen Mary).

IMG_1586

ACX has just informed me that RASH’s audiobook was approved and is now on sale. What a lovely present, I think.

I move on to Facebook and bask in the many adoring birthday posts and cute gifs from my pals around the world: some old, some new. Some I’ve met in person; lots I only know virtually. I am probably blushing from all the love being shared, but there’s no one here to tell me if I am.

I open We Love Memoirs, where I know I will find no fewer than fifty salutations, because that’s how they roll over there in WLM. Okay, so there are only forty-one strangers wishing me a happy day, but I am beyond touched. I scroll a bit to see if there’s been any news about Lindsay. I find

poooos

And just like that, my full heart shatters into a thousand million pieces.

FRIDAY: “Questioning”

I’m sitting in the back of the living room in my mother’s memory care facility. A middle-aged man with a guitar is singing Jewish-ish songs in front of the residents who are arranged in a semi-circle. Most of them, including my mother, are asleep. “Shabbat Shalom” I hear and realize it’s the Jewish Sabbath. We never actually observed Shabbat in our household, but my mother took pride in being Jewish, especially after we moved to southern California and knew no other Jews. I believe my mother’s benumbed mind might find some connection, some solace, in her spiritual past so I go up to her and nudge her awake. “Mama, listen to the music,” I whisper. “He’s playing Jewish songs.”

She nods, and then closes her eyes once more.

I go back to my chair and open my laptop so I can continue combing through the hundreds of news articles, social media posts, and Dominican new videos, about Lindsay’s murder. Since last night I’ve been sleep-walking through a fog of devastation. I am, simply put, gutted.

I am also very angry. Who could possibly want to hurt a woman who did nothing but help others? A woman who was one of the most benevolent people I knew.

SATURDAY: “Leaving”

I’m in the Atlanta airport aggressively DMing a bunch of commenters who knew Lindsay personally. My rage is infinite and I am obsessed with finding out all I can about her heinous murder. I ask Dorean* to tell me what she believes happened. She writes:

I think we are beginning to believe that Danilo, his two sons and a third person who had her phone are the culprits. Someone is sending me DR news reports, 4 now arrested. I have been chatting with a couple of other women who also both believe it was Danilo and his sons. I now believe that Danilo was behind the two previous attacks. I think he thought he was marrying a rich English woman and thereby swept aside the age difference but it soon became obvious she was not wealthy and she became the income earner. The more I read the more I am coming to believe she also knew more than she was letting on. Those of us who have been in a bad marriage are very good at keeping our concerns to ourselves and I think Lindsay worked hard to have wonderful friends as a foil to her concerns about Danilo. I keep waking up at night thinking about what they did to her, and have been trying to make sense of it all day.

I write to Suze* after I see one of her comments. She says:

Hey Lisa, Lindsay was an absolute angel who helped anyone she could at any time. The amount of people who she has helped who have messaged me is insane I don’t know how she had the time to help so many people.
I first met her on dr1.com. It’s a website for expats for the DR type thing. We started talking and she made me read her first book she said I would love it. I wasn’t a big reader so it took months and months of her telling me to read it when I finally did I couldn’t put it down and finished it in one sitting.
We talked online a lot. My opinion is they 100% have the right people in custody. I would bet my life on it. It’s absolutely horrific what happened and I am trying to digest wtf just happened.

SUNDAY: “Muting”

Just as I’m getting dressed to go see Loy’s Vermont Youth Orchestra concert my phone rings. I see Perla’s name and instantly pick up. It’s her first day on the job and I’m hoping she’s merely calling to check in. “Hi there,” I say nonchalantly, even as a knot of concern tightens around my chest.

“Lisa. I can no longer be here in this place. The people, I don’t understand them.”

I hold my finger up to Victor, who is motioning to me that it’s time to leave. “What? What people?”

“Your mother. We were outside and she says she’s not feeling so good in her belly so I bring her inside but her door is locked, you see, and so I cannot bring her to the bathroom and I make her wait and I go looking for someone to open her door, but Lisa, there is no one!”

I nod. One of my biggest complaints about the facility is their inadequate ratio of caregivers to residents. Even though the salespeople boast to prospective families that it’s 1:9, that’s a bold lie. There are never enough uniformed people around, which is part of the reason I hired Perla in the first place. “So what happened?”

Before Perla could get her to a bathroom, my mother started throwing up into her own hands. Perla spent the next hour cleaning her. “I cannot stay here, Lisa. It is too much.” I find it hard to believe one accident is enough to make her quit. I suspect there is more to the story, but I have to get to the concert so I thank her for her time, tell her to say hi to my mother, and hang up, defeated.

MONDAY: “Surrendering”

I call Andy to get the lowdown and he’s as stunned as I am by Perla’s departure. She hasn’t returned any of his calls or texts. “Maybe she got a better job offer,” I suggest.

“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” he replies carefully, “but, she did say that um, when you toured her around last week you, ah, you were…”

“I was what?”

“She said you were very demanding. I think maybe you scared her.”

***

I spend half of my 45-minute therapy session talking about Lindsay’s murder allegedly at the hands of her husband and stepson, and the other half whining about how hard it is to be a long-distance caretaker. I try not to cry because these 45 minutes are precious and I don’t want to waste any of them blowing my nose.

When I get home, instead of working, I read through the endless stream of comments from Lindsay’s friends and acquaintances in the R.I.P.: Lindsay De Feliz is missing (Matilda) thread on dr1.com (Matilda was Lindsay’s sobriquet). I do not understand this obsessive need I have to gather every word, every sentiment, every memory relevant to Lindsay’s life, but I am desperate to find something.

I find it on page 68 where someone has copied an old post of Lindsay’s:

In a very past life I used to interview students who wanted to do an MBA. As well as all the usual questions, to try and find out a bit more about them I would ask: ‘What do you want on your tombstone?’ and ‘What do you think of, first thing in the morning as soon as you wake up?’. The answers can be very revealing!!! So I will kick off.

On my tombstone I want: ‘She made a difference.’ and first thing I think of in the morning is: “must feed the cats” as there are 9 of them miaowing at the side of the bed for breakfast.

Ok over to you guys…… Matilda

***

Andy texts me and asks if I am available right now to interview Pamela* I close my laptop and call his office. Pamela is from Jamaica and her accent is so thick I am having a hard time understanding her through the phone’s muffled speaker, but I get the sense, without having any idea what she looks like, that she is kind. Yes, she can work Sundays, she readily concedes, and yes, she would like very much to help my mother.

I do not ask her if she’s married or if she’s patient with old folks who pee in their own pants. I don’t push or prod or insist or demand. Instead I tell her how happy I am that Andy has found her. “Even if you just sit with her and hold her hand while she listens to music,” I say. “Even that will make a difference.”

*Name has been changed

 

 

THREE

 

number-3

 

I

 

My mother always used to say that bad things happen in three’s.

A few weeks ago Victor broke a pint glass glasswhile taking it out of the dishwasher. I got mad because I love our pint glasses. I drink everything out of them: water, tea, even my milky coffee. A day later I dropped a glass while rinsing it and it shattered inside the sink—thank goodness. For the remainder of the day I was on guard, waiting for the third shoe—um, glass—to drop. That night, when I took a sip from my gin on the rocks, I felt a tug at my lower lip. Sure enough, the crystal tumbler was mysteriously chipped.

Our basement flooded the following week. basementIt’d rained so much the ground around our house couldn’t contain the water and it seeped in through the walls. We shop-vacuumed up the deluge and I spent hours replacing soaked-through towel after soaked-through towel until the water, at last, ceased flowing. The very next day the dehumidifier leaked. It was maybe a puddle’s worth of captured humidity: not enough for me to think of it as #2 or to fear there might be a #3. Lo and behold: the following day, while Victor was cleaning out the washing machine, the drip thing (I believe that’s the technical term for that particular part) that needed to be emptied got clogged and when he pulled on it, enough water gushed out that the stack of clean towels were employed yet again.

In the grand scheme of life, three lost glasses and three watery annoyances didn’t warrant any dramatic concern. Nor did it over-stimulate my superstitious leanings.

I did my best not dwell on the fact that TWO sets of THREE unfortunate events had just occurred. I refused to believe that a third set would soon follow.

But, as we all know, mothers are always correct.

II

 

As I do most mornings, I read the local obituaries. My therapist finds this routine curious, if not a little ghastly. I am of the age where mortality is not so far-fetched a concept as it was when I was a carefree twenty-something or 30-something or even a 40-something woman who still saw more ahead than behind. No matter how much flax seed I sprinkle on my wild blueberries or how many negative mammograms I receive, I know I’m past my life’s half-way mark. I read the obits partly because I feel lucky to be alive when others don’t get to be. I like to see people living long lives. I silently cheer when I read about folks who’ve lived to their 90s. I fret when I see someone my own age dead.

What most rattles me, though, is when I come upon a familiar face.

As I scrolled the list of recently-deceased on Monday, November 4th, I saw someone I knew. His name was Sead Korajkic and he’d died the night before. He was 66.

Sead

I didn’t really know Sead, but I knew him enough to feel okay about sharing a memory in the guestbook:

During the many years I’ve been shopping at Market 32 (nee Price Chopper) I always begin in the produce section where the first thing I do is look around for Sead. Before picking out a bunch of green bananas or squeezing the avocados, I peer over toward the onions in hopes that I might find him. And then I see him and he sees me. His smile grows. His eyes light up and he waves, yelling, “Hello! Hello!” as if I were his best friend in the world, and not simply some random customer who shops for radishes once a week. I walk over. Sometimes we hug. I ask him how he is. He says, “Is good. All is good, and you?” I say, “I am fine, thank you,” and move on toward the ginger, feeling lighter, happier, a bit more connected to the ground on which I walk. I will miss these moments of grace. Hvala vam puno, Sead.

I would have liked to have attended his funeral on Tuesday at the Islamic Society of VT Mosque, but I already had plans to fly down to Florida at 5:30 that morning to visit my mother.

After I got off the plane and rented a car I drove straight to her memory care facility. She greeted me with a “I-sort-of-know-who-you-are” smile and a half-kiss before she went back to using her fingers to dig pieces of canned pineapple out of a plastic cup. I threw down my bag and went off to make my usual rounds of saying hi to Sandra the nurse who phones me whenever Mom falls or walks into a wheelchair and slashes her shin; the too few caretakers who take good care of my mother; and the wives and husbands and children of the other residents with whom I keep in touch through texts and emails.

In particular, I looked around for Gail, whose husband Larry lived a few doors down from my mother. Gail and Larry were from NYC. Larry was a high school guidance counselor and Gail was a teacher. They got married in 1970 and were, as far as I could tell, fiercely devoted to one another. When Larry developed dementia, Gail took care of him at home for as long as humanly possible before moving him into a facility, but she was there Every. Single. Day. She sometimes sent me photographs of my mother. She was my woman on the ground, so to speak, keeping me informed about the goings-on around the locked neighborhood.anotherfaillarry

I wandered over to Larry’s room, and saw that, oddly enough, the door was closed. I looked around for the couple, but couldn’t find them. Then I ran into Nidia, the Venezuelan woman who was a personal aide for another resident.

“Hi, Nidia. Where’s Larry?” I asked.

“You don’t know?”

“Know what?”

“He died last night.”

“What? How? Why?”

“He fell. They gave him morphine and then, I don’t know; he died.” She shrugged like a person used to being around humans with a hand on the exit door.

I immediately IM’d Gail to tell her how very sorry I was about Larry’s passing, and the moment after I hit SEND, an eerie sensation shot through my spine.

That was two older men in a row.

And when I heard that paranoid voice in my head—the one that stops me from snatching pennies off the ground if they’re tails-up—whisper, “Another man will die very soon,” I pushed against it.

But…I guess I didn’t push hard enough because that night Victor called me to tell me his father, Charlie, had fallen and was in the hospital. His big beautiful brain was bleeding.

Like many Jewish kids born to immigrant parents in late 20s New York City, my father-in-law grew up dirt poor. His father, an illiterate Polish immigrant who fled as a child to America, was a bread baker. Charlie had no intention of baking in his father’s footsteps. He was determined to go to college. He wanted to have money.

charliiiii

He succeeded.

allfourkidsBut, unlike many previously-impoverished kids who turned stingy, selfish and self-centered after growing up and making it big, Charlie never forgot what it was like to go without. He was generous to a fault. He was a constant and loving presence in the lives of his four children.

He and my mother-in-law, Jane, had a long and enviably happy marriage.couple It didn’t matter if they were camping alongside a mountain lake or flying off to France to see their friends, Jane and Charlie adventured together with indefatigable passion. 

Charlie possessed an extraordinary sense of humor, honed in the Borscht belt where he waited tables; and was also an exceedingly captivating raconteur, especially after downing a few glasses of a fine Burgundy. Even Loy, who often had to sit through hours-long meals with her grandparents, laughed along as Charlie rattled off his huge repertoire of jokes, perhaps because she knew a fantastic dessert would soon be served? Although Charlie disavowed bread baking, he couldn’t suppress his floury fate: after retiring, he spent years apprenticing at French restaurants, eventually becoming a master pastry chef. The man knew how to spin flour, sugar, and butter into a thing of beauty and deliciousness.

baking

Loy and Charlie baking

Victor flew down on Thursday morning while Charlie was being transferred from his bed in the hospital to his bed on the Upper West Side. He texted me later that day:

text1

At 5:00 the next morning I awoke, reached for my phone, and saw:

text2

III

Before she got dementia my brothers and I often joked that our mother was part witch because even after we no longer lived with her, she always knew when one of us was sick or in trouble.

I actually believe my mother’s sixth sense stems from the gypsies scattered around her Hungarian bloodline. Whenever she dropped a spoon on the floor she’d say, “The next person who walks through the door will be a woman.” (A fork meant a man was soon to visit; a knife foretold a couple.) If she caught one of us scratching our palms she’d declare, “Oh, you’re about to get some money!” She was spot-on about 89% of the time.

I wish I could tell my mother that her old wive’s tale is, in fact, true: bad things do happen in three’s. She used to love listening to my stories and I know she would have enjoyed hearing about my recent run-ins with chipped glasses and sodden towels. 

She wouldn’t have liked hearing about the deaths, though. She adored Charlie and, had her brain still worked, she would have immediately called Jane to offer her condolences. And, after hanging up the phone she probably would have looked over at me with a satisfied smirk and said, “See? I told you so.”